Chairman Mao’s Poetry Classnotes Auctioned Off

Art Daily recently carried a story Rare handwritten notes by Chairman Mao of the utmost rarity on the international market

LONDON.- A remarkable collection of handwritten notes by Chairman Mao, of the utmost rarity on the international market, will be offered for sale for the first time at Sotheby’s on 11 July 2017. Dating from 1975, they reveal Mao’s continuing interest in and engagement with Classical Chinese Literature, a constant love throughout his life, even as his heath declined in his final years. 

The unique manuscript notes are the fruits of meetings between Mao and Di Lu, a classical Chinese scholar from Mao’s native Hunan, in the final year of his life. “

With failing sight and increasing difficulty in articulating words, he had begun to find himself cut off from the cultural traditions that held such deep meaning to him. Thus, The Party Central Committee was tasked with finding someone who could read classical works to Mao, and Di Lu was brought to see Mao. 

The article included a photo of one of the pages of notes Mao made in class.

I took a stab at reading Mao’s handwriting in the picture that accompanied the Art Daily photograph.


The first four characters are at the start of a poem.  Maybe the three dots after it are etc. etc.

风急天高  The winds blow furiously and Heaven is high…

Sound like something Mao would like! Mao’s poems tended to dramatic story stuff like Snoopy’s “It was a dark and stormy night….   Mao was eccentrically idealistic for a materialist communist.  This makes me think back to my Chinese textbooks, published in Beijing in 1970, that had several of Mao’s most famous essays, including “In Memory of Norman Bethune” and several of Mao’s poems including “Nothing is Possible if You Dare to Scale the Heights“.   We learned about Lei Feng and other revolutionary heros.  Much of the vocabulary was what I would have needed to become a Red Guard.  Nothing like learning how to saw “Long Live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, “Down with the Kuomindang Reactionary Clique!” and “Long Live Chairman Mao” in your second and third year readers. The vocabulary  introduced in elementary Chinese language textbooks, even from China, is much different these days!

The second and third lines are harder to read.  Perhaps they are 城安兴径     The city is peaceful and on the path of prosperity

The bottom line is hard too…

Something like  为国  灰  If so perhaps I give my all for my country   [literally for the country]   [ashes or gray]

Doing some searches online, I was surprised to find a number of people with the personal name 国灰  so I assume it has a suitably patriotic meaning!

The quotation in the first line comes from Du Fu’s poem Climbing High.  I found the translation and transliteration of the poem on the website Chinese Poems  at

Climbing High

by Du Fu


dēng gāofēng jí tiān gāo yuán xiào āi
zhǔ qīng shā bái niǎo fēi huí
wú biān luò mù xiāo xiāo xià
bú jìn cháng jiāng gǔn gǔn lái
wàn lǐ bēi qiū cháng zuò kè
bǎi nián duō bìng dú dēng tái
jiān nán kǔ hèn fán shuāng bìn
liáo dǎo xīn tíng zhuó jiǔ bēi

Wind swift heaven high ape cry grief
Islet clear sand white bird fly circle
No edge fall tree rustle rustle down
No end great river surge surge arrive
10,000 li sorrow autumn always be a guest
100 years many sickness alone climb platform
Difficult suffering regret numerous white temples
Frustrated now stop turbid drink cup
Swift wind, heaven high, an ape’s cry of grief,
At the islet of clear white sand, birds circle round.
Endlessly, trees shed leaves, rustling, rustling down,
Without cease, the great river surges, surges on.
Ten thousand miles in sorrowful autumn, always someone’s guest,
A hundred years full of sickness, I climb the terrace alone.
Suffering troubles, I bitterly regret my whitening temples,
Frustratingly I’ve had to abandon my cup of cloudy wine.


Notes: This poem dates from around 766; it was written for the Double Ninth festival, on which people traditionally climbed to a height and drank wine together (Watson pp. 145-6). The great river is the Yangtse river.

This poem is volume (juàn) 227, no. 76 in the Complete Tang Poems (quán táng shī). It is translated as poem 33 in Hawkes, pp. 203-5, poem CCCXXV in Hung , p. 249 and poem 120 in Watson, p. 146, and on p. 94 of Hinton.

Hawkes, D. (1967) A Little Primer of Tu Fu. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Hinton, D. (1990) The Selected Poems of Tu Fu. London, Anvil Press Poetry.
Hung, W. (1952) Tu Fu: China’s Greatest Poet. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Watson, B. (2002) The Selected Poems of Du Fu. New York, Columbia University Press.


Chinese language discussions of the poem are at the links below.





About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Retired now, translated Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and studying some things. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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